We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season; this is part of that series.
Tom Brady won't be the Patriots' starting QB in 2020 for the first time since the new millennium. This means that Jarrett Stidham is the favorite to start Week 1, barring a last-minute signing of former-MVP Cam Newton. Backup QB Brian Hoyer could also feasibly make some noise, as coach Bill Belichick when asked about the team's current QB room with both Stidham and Hoyer said, "I have confidence in both players."
Still, it seems more likely than not that the Patriots' 2019 fourth-round pick will be under center by the time Week 1 rolls around. Their decision to not address the position in the draft seemingly means they viewed Stidham as a fairly high-end QB in this class, and the Patriots doubled down by not investing in any of the league's available veteran signal callers such as Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco and Jameis Winston.
Let's breakdown the Patriots' probable Week 1 starting QB in an effort to find out what the team's ceiling could be in 2020.
Stidham was a somewhat promising prospect coming out of Auburn
Let's take a look at three different evaluations of Stidham prior to the 2019 draft.
NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein said ...
"The 2017 Alabama win showed a mobile quarterback with good mechanics and intelligence who played with confidence and was able to convert in key situations. The 2018 tape shows a player who lost both his confidence and poise and began to play a rushed brand of football that seeped into his pre-snap planning and his post-snap accuracy. Stidham went from ascending prospect to developmental quarterback and he needs to find the right set of coaches and system to help rehab his confidence and timing."
The Athletics' Dane Brugler noted ...
"Stidham has workable tools with his size, arm talent and athleticism, although his mobility is negated by his frustrating internal clock, either holding the ball too long or rushing the process. His tape didn’t have as many second-chance throws as expected, which was disappointing. Overall, Stidham was clearly restricted in the Auburn offense and has the physical traits for the next level, but his slow trigger and inconsistent reaction to pressure are two concerning questions for his long-term future – one of the few legitimate developmental passers in this draft class."
Finally, an anonymous national scout for an NFC team was quoted as saying ...
"That was a really dysfunctional offense this year. The offensive line was bad, the receivers couldn't get open and the coaching was a big problem, I thought. He didn't play well, but he didn't get much help either."
The general message from each paints Stidham as a talented QB that flashed in 2017 before regressing (along with the rest of Auburn) in 2018. Concerns about the QB's ability to deal with pressure and confidence aren't ideal, but they can at least be eased a little bit considering he's had a year with Brady, Belichick, and OC Josh McDaniels to help iron out those deficiencies.
One potential issue with projecting QBs from certain high-paced spread-heavy offenses like Auburn is that they usually don't ask their QBs to make multi-read decisions from the pocket. This doesn't necessarily mean the QB can't accomplish this; we just haven't seen much evidence of it occurring.
There's reason to believe that this concern isn't as prevalent with Stidham as initially thought based on his performance in the 2019 preseason.
Stidham performed better than okay in the preseason
I get it, preseason football isn't as good of a predictor as regular season production. Still, it's the only extended sample we currently have of Stidham against professional competition other than four pass attempts in mop-up duty during the 2019 regular season.
Stidham's results were overwhelmingly positive during the 2019 preseason (PFF):
- Completion rate: 67% (No. 20 among 79 qualified QBs)
- Yards per attempt: 8 (tied for No. 10)
- QB Rating: 101.5 (No. 12)
- Adjusted completion percentage: 84.1% (No. 5)
- Catchable deep-ball rate: 64% (No. 6)
- Adjusted completion percentage when kept clean: 90.6% (No. 2)
- QB Rating when kept clean: 124.9 (No. 6)
The issue was Stidham's performance under pressure. He completed just 10-of-25 passes when throwing under pressure, posting the league's 49th-best QB Rating while being one of just 16 QBs to be pressured on at least 40% of their dropbacks. Stidham deserves most of the blame here: pressure tends to be more of a QB stat than an indictment on the offensive line. Stidham's average of 2.77 seconds from snap to attempt was the 12th-slowest time among 79 qualified QBs and reflects the reality that his internal clock could still be an issue.
There are plenty of bad QBs surrounding Stidham on the top of these preseason leaderboards. His performance is hardly a sign of a future Hall of Fame career ... but it's also safe to say that it's better for a player to perform good rather than bad regardless of the level or competition that he's facing.
Ultimately, the biggest thing going in Stidham's favor is the reality that ...
Belichick isn't in the tanking business
There's an idea floating around that Belichick, the man obsessed with winning and capable of changing an entire team's identity week-to-week to specifically counter a single opponent, is in the business of tanking for Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. I simply don't buy it. The Patriots managed to go 10-5 in 15 games with Matt Cassel under center back in 2008, and then started the 2016 season off with a 3-1 run while Brady was suspended. Even the two worst seasons of Belichick's head coaching career, 1995 with the Browns (5-11) and 2000 with the Patriots (5-11), hardly saw his team become the league's clear-cut worst unit.
Oddsmakers at William Hill presently have the Patriots' 2020 win total set at nine. Perhaps New England doesn't have enough talent to win the AFC East for the 12th-consecutive season, but expecting them to tank and actively attempt to earn the 2021 No. 1 overall pick goes against the win-at-all-costs mentality that Belichick has instilled in the entire franchise over the past two decades.
There's reason to believe the Patriots' world-beating defense from last season won't be quite as good because 1) Elite defenses tend to regress from year to year and 2) They'll have to replace each of OLB Kyle Van Noy, S Duron Harmon, OLB Jamie Collins and DT Danny Shelton. The offense is (again) severely lacking in skill-position talent, although there's reason for optimism with improved health and across the offensive line considering they return all five starters if you include 2018 C David Andrews.
Consider: Brady was the QB12 in total fantasy points in 2019, and the QB17 in fantasy points per game. This was despite easily turning in his worst statistical performance in years.
Brady isn't washed; there were a number of factors that contributed to his down year. Still, the Patriots went 12-4 with this version of Brady struggling to consistently lead the offense down the field.
Who knows if Stidham can be any better in 2020 than Brady was in 2019? My money would be on no. Still, it's not an impossible task for Stidham to flirt with being average if the team can have even a little bit more injury luck on offense and an improved run game.
Stidham is currently going outside of the top-30 QBs in most fantasy formats, literally behind unsigned free agents and veterans that are likely to have their jobs snatched by rookies. If we're projecting Stidham to start 16 games in 2019, we should probably be projecting him to finish inside of the league's top-30 to top-25 fantasy QBs. I wouldn't bet much on Stidham emerging as a fantasy star in 2020, but he's a close to free late-round investment as a QB3 if you feel the need to carry more than two signal callers.